Sharing Your Loss

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Losing 71 pounds isn't enough for actress Kirstie Alley: She recently announced that she plans to shed another 15 pounds by November to wear a bikini on "Oprah."

Alley is, of course, just the latest in a long list of celebrities willing to share their weight-loss struggles with the world -- and who often are compensated handsomely to do so. Others include comedian Whoopi Goldberg, talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford and Baseball Hall of Fame member Tommy Lasorda, all former spokesmen for Slim-Fast. After being dubbed the "Duchess of Pork" and then slimming down, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, became a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. "Today" show weatherman Al Roker, singer Carnie Wilson and Oprah Winfrey are among the others who have publicly chronicled their waistline wars.

Where Alley differs is in going public before she achieved her goal -- a move that many weight-loss experts consider risky. Yet it's also one taken by a growing number of regular folks, from contestants on the reality television show "The Biggest Loser" to Steve "Fat Man Walking" Vaught, who tried to walk across America to lose weight. Even the young are getting into the act: MTV's reality show "Made" featured "Prom King" segments that chronicled the efforts of an obese teen trying to lose enough weight to snag his high school crown. And every January, companies entice employees to enter weight-loss competitions that pit one department or plant against another to see who can shed the most pounds.

Some people thrive on making their weight-loss goals common knowledge. "They think it will help to keep them on the straight and narrow," notes Arthur Frank, medical director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program, who advises against going public. "It's better not to get other people involved unless they have to know," he says.

That's because there's a natural inclination to "start monitoring, watching and making judgments," Frank says. "Everyone suddenly becomes a weight-loss expert and tells you what you should be doing."

Sometimes the best intentions can backfire, turning from well-meaning support into humiliation.

Frank recalls one patient who announced to her office colleagues that she was going to lose weight. They not only encouraged her efforts but posted a chart in a very public spot to track her weight loss. "That was fine," he says, "until a bunch of complications came into her life. The weight loss started to level off and then creep up. That's when I asked her, 'Who is going to take that chart off the wall?' It's the kind of thing that gets people into trouble."

But for others, going public can serve as motivation. A few years ago, the Discovery Health Channel and its Web site highlighted the weight-loss efforts of half a dozen people, from a pastry chef to a mother of twins. "I swore when I met them that not any of them would lose much weight," says David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, who served as a consultant to the project. "But they all lost weight, and at the end of the day the fact that there was a public incentive to lose weight helped them."

Going public also helped physician Nick Yphantides shed 270 pounds. A former executive director of the Escondido Community Health Center in Southern California, Yphantides once tipped the scales at 467 pounds. When his weight began taking a health toll, he quit his job, called a press conference to announce weight-loss goals and set a deadline to achieve it. He met his goal a year later and has maintained his weight for the past five years.

For him, public accountability was essential. "On my own, I am still a 467-pound slob," says Yphantides, who has set up a Web site, http://www.healthsteward.com , to allow others to publicly chronicle their weight loss odysseys as a way of being accountable.

Virtually no research, however, has examined the effect of going public with weight loss. "Making a declaration can increase commitment for some people," says Rena Wing, co-founder of the National Weight Loss Registry. "But for many who have lost weight, regained it and are trying again, they don't want do to that. It's just too public."

At Weight Watchers, group leaders are trained to keep weekly weigh-ins very private and to never note aloud whether a member has made his or her goal for the week. "Our basic position is that only the person [being weighed] has to know," says Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific director for Weight Watchers, which encourages participants to seek support in making lifestyle changes to lose weight.

That doesn't need to involve a public diet pronouncement. "Talk about some of the behaviors you are trying to change," Miller-Kovach says. "So you might say to a friend or family member, 'I'm trying to get more active. Would you be interested in going on a walk with me?' "

If enlisting help or telling others that you are trying to adopt new habits feels uncomfortable, those are important feelings to examine. "Is it because you're a really private person?" says Miller-Kovach. "Or that you don't yet have the confidence to do it? If that's the case, it can be very self-defeating." ยท

Join Sally Squires, author of "Secrets of the Lean Plate Club" (St. Martin's Press), on the Lean Plate Club Web chat from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub, where you can also subscribe to the free e-mail newsletter and check the chat transcript any time.


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